At the beginning of April, a young woman came to my door collecting for Battersea Cats and Dogs Home. We have one dog and two cats in our house so we struck up a good conversation.
It turned out that the young woman was a trained lawyer, about to start a Masters course at UCL. “That’s wonderful” I said, “I noticed a slight accent in your voice, do you mind if I ask where you were born?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that” the young woman replied “ in Britain it is considered a weakness if you come from my country”.
It may me feel very uncomfortable to think that things had got to this point in Britain.
This young woman, with so much to offer this country, felt that the climate of opinion was so negative in Britain – and this in London – that she was unable to acknowledge where she came from.
“Well you’ve knocked on the right door,” I replied, “because I am part of an organisation called New Europeans, which is working with other groups to change the narrative on migration.”
The young woman’s name is Mihaela. I gave her the contact details for New Europeans and she then told me she is from Romania and offered to help with our campaigns.
“Thank you, I said, we need you, but don’t get distracted from your studies! The UK also needs your contribution and I wish you every success!”
Two years ago, we all celebrated with the world at the London Olympics. Britain showed a face that was warm, open, tolerant, welcoming and strong.
Above all, we celebrated our diversity as a nation – our unity in diversity. There were no trucks driving around the streets at that time with pointy fingers telling immigrants to go home.
One reason why this nation needs migration is because men and women from other countries help to remind us who we are.
They hold the mirror up to us. We see our shortcomings but we also see our own potential, including our potential for change.
The challenge of change upsets many people – the idea that things can be done differently, that life doesn’t always have to go on as before.
The migrant, the outsider, represents change, embodies change in the journey he or she has made to be with us in Britain today.
Without migration, Britain can neither sustain its economy and public services nor grow as a nation and as a community.
We are fortunate in Britain that we are a country of migration, a nation of migrants.
We are fortunate in Britain that we are a country in which you can still breathe the air of freedom.
We are fortunate in Britain that people like Mihaela come here to study, to work and to contribute to our society.
This does not make the British better or worse than anybody else – but it does mean that we are a nation, which is able to understand and celebrate difference. Migrants remind us who we are.
New Europeans have joined the Migrants Contribute campaign because we firmly believe that migration is a powerful and positive force in our society.
It is high time that we the ‘open’, ‘tolerant’, ‘fair-minded’, ‘diverse’, British were shaken up and reminded of that fact.
And as for the politicians who play politics with the issue of migration – well in my view, we need to send a clear, simple, co-ordinated message with these three words “Don’t you dare!”.
We want to live in a country where Mihaela and others like her feel comfortable and proud to say where they come from, don’t we?
(Roger is the Chair of New Europeans, a civil society movement promoting the rights of European citizens, including the right to live and work in any EU member state. He is an independent government affairs adviser. Previously he was the Labour MP for Wimbledon and a parliamentary private secretary in the Foreign Office.)